Meg Baird – Dear Companion

Meg Baird
Dear Companion

As the primary vocalist in Philadelphian acid-folk sextet Espers, Meg Baird has already proved herself to be a bewitching interpreter of songs – both ancient and modern – as well as a blossoming composer in her own right. But for all of Espers’ recorded triumphs to date – particularly 2005’s transcendental mini-album The Weed Tree – it’s been hard not to wish for Baird’s crystalline yet earthy tones to be lifted, if only temporarily, from the fog of the band’s hallucinogenic hazing. For the bulk of Dear Companion – Baird’s seductively sparse solo debut – we are delivered with such wish fulfilment.

Probably in a bid to keep her deep devotion to late-‘60s/early-‘70s folk revivalism uncorrupted, Baird’s first solitary release – cut during downtime in the recording sessions for Espers II – doesn’t go for instant easy overnight sensations. Aside from a couple of oft-covered folk standards, Baird’s choice of material swerves away from easy recognition and her own compositions seem almost deliberately unobtrusive. Instrumentally too, this is a nakedly stark set-up; with Baird accompanied only by a picked/strummed acoustic guitar or a dulcimer and the occasional double-tracked vocal. It takes an intangible twist of enchantment to stop such raw ingredients from turning to dry formula or congealing into finger-in-the-ear folk clichés, but mercifully Baird has the weave to make it work.

It takes a good dozen or so spins for Dear Companion to reveal its many measured charms, but once found there’s nothing to dislike and plenty to love. Two equally lovely versions of the title-track start and finish the record, in respective guitar-led and a cappella arrangements. The two most travelled British traditionals – “The Cruelty of Barbry Ellen” and “Willie O’Winsbury” – come imbued with aching Appalachian melancholy across their six or so minutes apiece of faithfully bittersweet story-telling. Another period ballad of approximately the same vintage – “Sweet William And Fair Ellen” – enjoys an evocative dulcimer-drone treatment, redolent of the fractured spookiness of The Incredible String Band. Perhaps more remarkable translations come with the gorgeous torchlight take on “All I Ever Wanted” (originally by somewhat unhip Grateful Dead-offshoot outfit, New Riders of the Purple Sage) and a gentile whispery glide through Jimmy Webb’s “Do What You Gotta Do” (apparently learned from jazz-pop chanteuse Roberta Flack, of all people).

Having given so much to the songs of others, Baird’s only two self-penned originals– the Nick Drake-indebted “Riverhouse In Tinicum” and the slightly-forgettable “Maiden In The Moor Lay” – feel undersold and too unassuming to really leave a mark. Perhaps the bravery Baird has shown in so stringently cutting away from Espers’ sonic cloudiness could also be extended to investing more into her own promising, albeit under-explored, penmanship. However, at least leaving us with a thirst for something more, bodes well in justifying another solo set.

Whilst Dear Companion won’t exactly throw the musical world off its axis, its magnetic charms are hard to shake free from. At its best, Dear Companion finds Meg Baird forging the missing-link between the dear departed Sandy Denny and the still-very-much-living Gillian Welch – which is high-praise indeed for an ‘accidental’ side-project.